At first she did not hear the sound. Elanore was embroiled in a strange, muddled dream in which lions and elves wandered through mazes and labyrinths. But eventually she opened her eyes and looked about in the darkness.
She did not know where she was.
But she listened for a few moments, finding the comforting sound of the cuckoo clock marking time. She could hear the pendulum thoughtfully moving back and forth before it was joined by asynchronous tapping.
The staccato sound changed in both rhythm and volume several times before Elanore understood from where it came. She reached for the lamp at her bedside as she rose, lighting it automatically with matches from a drawer. Her fingers carefully tied a shawl about her shoulders before she drifted across the floor and paused at the top of the stairs.
Her head turned sideways to listen. Bedcovers rustled in the room next to hers, but the woman within that room did not wake.
The lamp guided Elanore as she moved cautiously down the stairs. When she reached the door from which the taps came, she peered through the peephole in the door. With so little moonlight in the sky, her effort to look outside was pointless. All she could do was to call out, “Who is there?”
Suddenly, the knocking stopped.
A howling came from outside, perhaps the wind wrapping itself around the small house. When it stopped, a familiar voice spoke through the door. “Miss Redley, it is I. It is urgent that I speak to you.”
The young lady might have been pleased to hear such a voice earlier in the day, but at such an hour she frowned instead, wondering what emergency might call the man here.
She was greeted by a blast of cold wind as she opened the door. Her eyes shut involuntarily against it, only to reopen and find the Count inside already, shutting the door behind him and resting his cane against the wall.
Surprised by his quickness, she almost forgot to say hello. But she greeted him, if faintly, while adjusting her shawl with her free hand as she looked at the gentleman’s attire and realized she was not dressed to receive him.
When she turned her full attention back on the man, she was startled by the intensity of his expression. “Is it Giles? Is he ill?”
In the weak light, the Count’s eyes appeared to glitter. “Giles is fine. As are you I see.”
“Then the emergency--”
“Miss Redley,” his normally smooth voice sharpened. “A lion reportedly was running amuck in the town earlier this evening. A woman in red was seen on his back. When I asked the lions about this careless act, I received a rambling and confusing explanation.”
Elanore bristled slightly, unsettling the lamp in her hand. Small flickers of light danced on the wall unevenly, making it hard for her to see him all that well. “I did not ask Gawain to go there. He went to inspect a fountain while I was on his back.”
“I see,” came the answer after a significant pause. “I am aware that the lions seem to wander here often. I did not know that they had taken to transporting you about.”
“Today was the first such occasion,” she countered. “They usually only are here when it is dark, but today Gawain came early so I thought to take advantage of his timing to ride with him.”
“I have heard you wished to see me.” His voice sounded soft and kind again. “Were you intending to meet me?”
She did not know what to make of this man, at times intimidating and at others solicitous. Elanore did not trust his sudden good mood. “Gawain and I did discuss going to your estate,” she admitted hesitantly. “But--”
He leaned in to steady the lamp in her hand, his gloved fingers brushing against hers. “But what?”
Elanore felt his breath upon her cheek and tried not to look into his eyes, again lit with some sort of amusement and something far more dangerous. She blurted out, “But the lion and I went to see the guildmaster instead.”
He stepped back, irritation replacing a smile that had begun to form on his face. “The guildmaster cares little for the history